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I gave, and received, this year a notable reminder that the cultures of the Middle-East — Iranian, Arabic, Turkish– have more to offer than the headlines would suggest. Tablet and Pen is a large anthology of modern literary work in translation, edited by Reza Aslan, of Iranian extraction and now a professor at UC Riverside. Though I usually prefer smaller, more specific volumes, with translators I’ve had some experience with this volume is a good reason to break my rule. The literature of these languages is so unknown to most of us, and the cultures so varied and rich, we need a boost to get started.

The other thing I appreciate about Aslan’s volume is that it includes both fiction and poetry. Poetry is a rarified language for many readers, and passed over because of that. The short tales, like Refik Halit Karay’s  “The Gray Donkey” [Turkish], Ghassan Kanafani’s the “Letter from Gaza” [Palestinian]  and the excerpt from Naguib Mahfouz’s  “The Seventh Heaven,” [his last book] will all welcome non poetry readers.   Other well known writers such as Tawfiq al-Hakim,  Orhan Pamuk and Yusif Idris also have short pieces in the volume.

As for poetry lovers, there is plenty, from Nazim Hikmet to Mahmoud Darwish to Hamid Reza Rahimi and many in between.

by Hamid Reza

One's throat must be like a garden
And one's eyes like windows
     through which love passes;
And one's stature
Must be like a tree
     that rises out of rocks;
And poetry much be like a singing bird,
Perching on the highest branch of a tree,
Breaking the heavy silence of the world.

I’m Dying, God
by Cemal Sureya
I’m dying, God.
This has happened, too.

Every death is an early death,
I know.
What’s more, this life you are taking
Isn’t bad…
No more said.